Statistics released by the Department of Health reveal costly delays that could jeopardise the lives of suspected head and neck cancer patients.
According to the 2012/13 Cancer Waiting Times annual report, 1,252 suspected head and neck cancer patients had to wait longer than three weeks to be seen by a specialist, a delay that could potentially cost lives.
With mouth cancer cases on the increase, campaigners the British Dental Health Foundation is calling for suspected head and neck cancer patients to be seen within the two-week referral target due to the very nature of the disease.
Without early detection, the five-year survival rate for mouth cancer is only 50%.
If it is caught early, survival rates over five years can dramatically improve to up to 90%.
Between April 2012 and March 2013, more than one million patients were seen by cancer specialists following an urgent referral.
A total of 96.1% of suspected head and neck cancer were seen within 14 days of referral, compared to 96.3% in 2010-20112. More than 50,000 patients were not seen within 14 days of referral.
Cancer waiting times are monitored carefully by the Foundation, which organises the Mouth Cancer Action Month campaign, sponsored by Denplan also supported by Dentists' Provident and the Association of Dental Groups (ADG), in November each year to help raise awareness of the disease and its symptoms.
Tobacco use, drinking alcohol to excess, smoking, poor diet and the human papillomavirus (HPV), transmitted via oral sex, are all known risk factors for mouth cancer, which is forecast to affect 60,000 people in the UK over the next decade.
Chief executive of the British Dental Health Foundation, Dr Nigel Carter, said: 'The challenge in relation to mouth cancer is to ensure that, due to the very nature of the disease, patients are seen quickly. Most people with mouth cancer present late as stage 4 – the most advanced stage where time is of the essence in potentially saving a life.
'It is pleasing to see such a high percentage of suspected cancer patients seen within two weeks, but mouth cancer patients in particular should not have to wait more than three weeks.'